I love a saga and that period after the First World War is such an interesting one, both for returning soldiers and the women who all of a sudden found themselves contemplating a future with no men left to marry. Therefore, I was very drawn to The Surplus Girls.
It’s Manchester in 1922 and Belinda Layton is a mill worker. Having lost her fiancé in the war, she’s faced with a life of having to fend for herself and for that reason she wants to try and better herself by getting an office job. But at 20 she’s considered too old for the office junior jobs which are the starting point in office work so she joins the brand new business school set up by Miss Hesketh and Miss Patience Hesketh (that’s how they introduce themselves as Patience is the younger of the two spinster sisters) hoping to improve her situation in life.
Poor Belinda. She’s stuck between a rock and a hard place really. She has a difficult family background so she’s always trying to help out there, but she lives with her late fiancé’s mother and grandmother who are determined to prolong their mourning forever, including Belinda in that lifelong mourning. Imagine, a 20 year old unable to wear colour, unable to move on to another relationship. Belinda is such a lovely character even though her situation would try the patience of a saint! Thankfully, she is able to find a new position in a bookshop and this leads to all sorts of new experiences for her.
I thought the characters in this book were very well drawn and from all walks of life. I think the most interesting were the Misses Hesketh, middle-aged and well to do, yet actually rather poor. Despite that, they constantly tried to help others, including Belinda and her family.
The author has plotted her story well and really highlighted how different life was only just over 100 years ago. There’s also a clever little twist towards the end. I liked that there was such positivity in the story despite the circumstances in which the characters found themselves. This is my first book by this author (in either of her guises) and I’d definitely read another as this was a really pleasant and engaging read.
Nicola Smith, Short Book and Scribes, 4/4
The Surplus Girls by Polly Heron
Corvus 9781786499677 pbk Jan 2020